Ask Midge: How do you know when a story is finished?

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: On Publishing, On Writing, The Writing Life

Q: How do you know when a story, or even a novel, is truly finished?

A: This is, of course, among the most challenging questions to answer because writing (and being finished with a piece) is such a uniquely personal thing. I was talking with an artist friend recently about this: She said that it must be difficult to be a writer because you actually have to finish a story or book, whereas she can always go back and rework a painting. I pointed out that writers, too, rework things a zillion times — and that even once something is “finished,” i.e., published, we often still feel as though we’d like to rewrite it. (At least, I do…and I’m sure I’m not the only one! I talked a little about this in a recent interview with Brenda Miller, c0-author (with Holly Hughes) of The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World.)

In short, whatever type of artist we may be, we probably all feel that we’re never quite done. Yet eventually paintings get sold, and stories and poems and novels get published — at that point, we have to let go. But how do we know we’re ready to send the work out into the world in the first place?

Here are a few tips (and while I use the word “story” below, the tips, of course, apply to anything from poems to essays to novels):

  • First, ask yourself a few important questions: Does this story reveal what I planned to say? Are the characters well developed and portrayed? Do I offer a sense of setting and detail that not only enhance but complete the piece? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end?
  • Next, give the project some space. You’ll need to step back and come back to your story fresh in order to see what it really needs, if anything; when we’ve been working hard on a piece, it’s impossible to get the necessary distance to know whether it’s working or not. Try a week or two; see if you’re able to look at it objectively and determine what needs fine-tuning or even complete reworking. If that’s not enough time, let it sit for a month or more. This is one step that is important not to rush.
  • Find a trusted reader. Most writers aren’t able to see their own work completely objectively — while we may be able to take it far, we all need at least one (or several) outside opinions to make sure we’re on the right track. Find one or two trusted people to read and respond to your story, answering the following questions: What have you gained/learned from reading this? What are your favorite parts of it? What, if anything, isn’t working for you? What do you feel is the point of this piece? Would you recommend it to others? Basically, you want to discover whether the reader has figured out what you’d hoped to say with your piece — as well as enjoyed the journey.
  • Send it out and gauge reactions. Once you feel it’s ready to go, send it out into the world! If you’ve finished your novel, send queries to a few agents; if you’ve finished a short story, send it to a few literary magazine editors. You’ll either get personal, detailed responses, or you may get form rejections that don’t tell you much. Keep in mind that a pile of form rejections can mean a lot of things: It can mean that your piece simply wasn’t the right fit for these particular agents or editors, or it could mean that it still needs some work. If the form rejections continue to pile up without any positive feedback at all, move on to the next step, which is…
  • Return to the beginning. Re-read the piece again after even more time and space and see what it might need. Be as objective if you can (and, if you have gotten some feedback, see whether it resonates with you and whether you might want to incorporate these suggestions). Then, after you’ve done another appraisal of the piece, find another reader to give you an objective opinion.

Clearly you could repeat this cycle endlessly, and no one wants to do that. At some point you will have to decide on one of the following:

1) The story is finished, and it’s publishable, and you’ll keep sending it out until it finds a home.

2) The story is finished, and it’s not publishable, and you’ll let it rest in peace.

3) The story is finished, it’s not publishable as is, and you’ll take it apart, recycle was is salvageable, and begin again.

In the end — and most important — you must ask yourself this key question: Am I proud of this? The one (and only) reader you must satisfy unconditionally is yourself. Not everyone will like what you write, but if you love it, then that’s something you can live with…and it’s the only opinion that counts.


  Comments: 4

  1. Sean, that is truly awesome. My “works in progress” file is ridiculously large for that reason: I’m always putting things that aren’t working aside, then realizing there’s probably something somewhat salvageable in there after all, and saving them for a time when I can make better sense of them and maybe even finish them one day. Hope you find some time to work on these newly discovered stories!

  2. I agree with Jean. I’ve found stories from months and years ago. Talk about being able to read it with fresh eyes! Yes, some were awful, but a select few were worth slipping into the “works in progress” file on my desktop. 🙂

  3. Jean, I couldn’t agree more! I too have learned (the hard way) that time away is so very important. It’s always tough because finishing a project is so exciting…but it’s definitely well worth the wait.

  4. What resonates especially for me here is the advice about taking a break from your work upon completion. This makes a surprisingly big difference. I need at least one week, preferably two, to gain sufficient objectivity. Don’t know why this is so important, but it is. I’ve learned–the hard way–not to submit anything right away.